The examined life: Robert George and Cornel West on the purpose of liberal arts education - AEI

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Event Summary

Princeton Professors Robert P. George and Cornel West joined AEI for a conversation, moderated by AEI’s Ramesh Ponnuru, seeking to answer one question: What is the purpose of a liberal arts education? Although Dr. George and Dr. West come from different political and personal backgrounds, they agreed on the answer. By making accessible the ideas posed by great thinkers throughout history, a liberal arts education empowers students to live examined lives. Without this examination, to quote Plato’s “Apology,” “life is not worth living.”

Dr. George and Dr. West discussed what this examination requires of individuals, the growing movement to instrumentalize higher education, the relationship between religion and education, and how their collaboration and friendship have deepened their own examinations.

Paraphrasing John Stuart Mill, Dr. George argued that “we should value dissent, even when we are confident that the dissenter is wrong, because that dissent will enable us, by way of having to defend the truth, to deepen our understanding and appreciation of it.” Dr. West concurred, adding from Friedrich Nietzsche that “it is not just a matter of having the courage of our convictions, but the courage to attack our convictions.” Who knows? There is always the possibility that we are wrong.
— Wilson Shirley

Event Description

While they are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, Princeton Professors Robert George and Cornel West have spent the past several years teaching and lecturing together to accomplish a common goal: the provision of a true liberal arts education to their students. Through their courses and their friendship, they have served as examples of how, when two knowledgeable and principled individuals come together in an honest and nonadversarial pursuit of truth, the competition of ideas deepens their own understanding of that truth.

Join AEI for this conversation, moderated by AEI’s Ramesh Ponnuru, a former student of both professors, as we ask what constitutes a true liberal arts education. Is its purpose instrumental, or is there something more? What values are necessary for universities, faculty, administrators, and students to ensure that a liberal arts education remains attainable?

Join the conversation on social media with #AEIGOW.


12:45 PM

1:00 PM
Ramesh Ponnuru, AEI

1:05 PM
Panelist discussion

Robert P. George, Princeton University
Cornel R. West, Princeton University

Ramesh Ponnuru, AEI

2:30 PM

3:00 PM

Event Contact Information

For more information, please contact Wilson Shirley at [email protected], 202.862.5826.

Media Contact Information

For media inquiries or to register a camera crew, please contact [email protected], 202.862.5829.

Speaker Biographies

Robert P. George holds Princeton University’s McCormick Chair in Jurisprudence and is the founding director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. He served as chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom and before that on the President’s Council on Bioethics and as a presidential appointee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights. He also served as the US member of UNESCO’s World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology. He is a former judicial fellow at the Supreme Court of the United States, where he received the Justice Tom C. Clark Award. He is the author of “In Defense of Natural Law” (Oxford University Press, 2001), “Making Men Moral: Civil Liberties and Public Morality” (Clarendon Press, 1995), “The Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion and Morality in Crisis” (Open Road Media, 2014), and “Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism” (Open Road Media, 2016). His scholarly articles and reviews have appeared in such journals as the Harvard Law Review, the Yale Law Journal, the Columbia Law Review, the American Journal of Jurisprudence, and the Review of Politics. He is a recipient of the United States Presidential Citizens Medal, the Honorific Medal for the Defense of Human Rights of the Republic of Poland, and many other national and international honors, including Princeton University’s President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching. Dr. George has given honorific lectures at Harvard University, Yale University, the University of St. Andrews, and Cornell University. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and holds 19 honorary doctorates of law, ethics, science, letters, divinity, humanities, law and moral values, civil law, humane letters, and juridical science. A graduate of Swarthmore College, he holds J.D. and M.T.S. degrees from Harvard University and a Ph.D. from Oxford University. In November 2016, he will receive the degrees of B.C.L. and D.C.L. from Oxford University.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a visiting fellow at AEI, where he examines the future of conservatism with particular attention to health care, economic policy, and constitutionalism. He is also a senior editor for National Review, where he has covered national politics and public policy for 18 years, and is a columnist for Bloomberg View. A prolific writer, he is the author of a monograph about Japanese industrial policy and a book about American politics and the sanctity of human life.

Cornel R. West is the Class of 1943 University Professor in the Center for African American Studies, Emeritus, and senior scholar in the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. He has also taught at Yale University, Harvard University, the University of Paris, and Union Theological Seminary. He has written and edited more than 30 books, including his memoir, “Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud” (, 2011), “Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism” (Penguin 2005), and “Race Matters” (Beacon Press, 1993). His most recent releases, “The Radical King” (Beacon Press, 2015) and “Black Prophetic Fire” (Beacon Press, 2014), were received with critical acclaim. Dr. West is well-known as a justice, antipoverty activist, and distinguished scholar. He has co-chaired the Democratic Socialists of America and is a founder of the Network of Spiritual Progressives. He co-chaired the National Parenting Organization’s Task Force on Parent Empowerment and participated in President Clinton’s National Conversation on Race. He is a frequent guest on “Real Time with Bill Maher,” “The Colbert Report,” CNN, C-SPAN, and “Democracy Now.” He made his film debut in the film “The Matrix” and was the commentator (with Ken Wilbur) on the official trilogy, released in 2004. He also has appeared in more than 25 documentaries and films, including “Examined Life,” “Call & Response,” “Sidewalk,” and “Stand.” He has made three spoken-word albums, including “Never Forget,” collaborating with Jill Scott, Andre 3000, Talib Kweli, KRS-One, Gerald Levert, and Prince. Dr. West has received more than 20 honorary doctorates. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University in three years and obtained his M.A. and Ph.D. in philosophy at Princeton University.

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